Wednesday, March 24th, 2010...8:24 pm

It's Too Hard

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Nora sits in front of her puzzle. She moves the piece to the left. She moves it to the right. She moves it left again and it slips easily into its slot. Next piece. She moves it around again, trying to find the spot where it will click in and cause the puzzle to make its signature sound. She moves it around and around and around. I watch, waiting for her to reach her point of frustration. I encourage her, saying things like almost, good job, try again. After a few more tries she throws the piece and yells, “It’s too hard!”

I pick up the thrown puzzle piece and make my way over to her. I hand it to her and say, “I know it’s hard. You’re doing a good job. Try again.” I coach her through the movements of the piece, though she doesn’t really need it this time. It slides easily into the slot, causing the puzzle to emit a somewhat frog-like sound; Nora looks over at me, wide eyed and smiling from ear to ear. “I did it!”

Today I sat in one of those teacher meetings all day – if you’re a teacher you’ll know exactly what I mean. The ones where they make you talk all day about the r word – rigor. If you’re not a teacher, I guess I would just tell you that these meetings go on for hours and don’t ever take us very far in actual planning of rigor. And they make us hate the r word. Do I believe in rigor. Of course. Am I sick of hearing about it? Yes.

All day today, however, I wasn’t only thinking about my classroom and the many ways I strive each day to truly challenge my students to think, to see themselves as integral pieces of the puzzle that is the world, to question what they are learning and find a way to connect it to something important in their lives; I was thinking about Nora’s puzzle.

Rigor really begins when you are a toddler. It starts when parents provide toys and games and crafts that challenge their kids to learn. Things as simple as puzzles, blocks, water tables, shape sorters all are rigorous. They challenge a child to develop skills that are meaningful and relevant and useful, to experiment and problem solve. And I think, most importantly, they teach children to work through their frustration.

So the teacher part of me collided with the parent part of me in a new way today. I started to think while I was sitting in this meeting where we talked about rigorous texts and why teachers and students alike are sometimes reticent to approach them, about what habits I am already hopefully establishing for Nora that will prevent her from shying away from reading difficult words, tackling challenging math problems, designing thoughtful science experiments. When she threw that puzzle piece across the room I didn’t let her quit. I didn’t come over and put it in its place for her. I showed her that she could do it herself. I really think that this attitude towards challenge is what is key to kids success. And maybe I’m wrong to assume it starts as early as 2, but I bet it does set some foundation for it.

This is the challenge of a teacher. How do I show all 173 of my students that they are no different from my two year old playing with a puzzle? How do I get them to see that you try and try and try and then suddenly most things will fall into place? That some puzzle pieces slide in easier than others? That if you throw it across the room that isn’t really helping anything? That when you finally do fit the piece in its place it’s a pretty rewarding feeling?

All the media is now saying that if I don’t succeed at providing rigor for all I should be fired. Look at the cover of Newsweek this week and you’ll see “We must fire bad teachers” eleven times next to the words “The Key to Saving American Education.” I agree in part with many sentiments of the article, that good teaching is partly innate, that teacher tenure may not be beneficial to students, that good teachers might get more respect if “the truly bad teachers were let go.” But, I am really loathe to believe that this one “new” idea – firing teachers – is the key to solving anything. As a teacher I also find it incredibly insulting that it is a new idea that I might be important. Fixing American education isn’t going to happen with one change or one new quick-solve. We teachers are certainly an intergral part of the education puzzle, but I don’t think we are the lynchpin.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is something that is very unpopular for an educator to admit (or, as the article says, part of a “defeatist mindset”). I think that the real key to fixing American education is to fix what happens at home. Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone have the right idea.

I don’t believe any parent sets out to fail to teach their kids the skills they need to succeed. I believe, like Canada, that many just don’t know how. The failure of American education is that we don’t teach them.

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1 Comment

  • Terrific post Sarah- I’ve forwarded it on to a couple of friends. I couldn’t agree with you more.

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